McGuire on Media

Roger Buoen describes the final MinnPost preparations

The new online daily enterprise in Minnesota, MinnPost, is ready to launch Nov. 8. When the new approach to daily journalism was announced  I wrote a blog entry entitled Joel Kramer is for Real lauding the innovation by my former boss and former publisher of the Star Tribune, Joel Kramer. In that blog, I opined Kramer’s best decision may have been hiring Roger Buoen to be his managing editor.

I worked with Buoen for 23 years and I watched him reinvent himself as a journalist time and again. The week Roger and I partnered with Scott Gillespie, now the Star Tribune’s editorial page editor, to lead the newspaper’s 9/11 coverage was perhaps the high point of my  35-year newspaper career.  Buoen’s dedication, talent and enthusiasm for making a difference cannot be questioned. 

Despite all the alligators snapping at him as MinnPost gets ready to launch, Roger took the time to answer some questions about the state of the effort to build an innovative news model.  I thought it would be interesting to take Roger’s temperature before there is real product for all of us to criticize and second-guess. Roger’s answers make it clear what MinnPost wants to be. All of us will be checking Nov. 8 and beyond to see if it achieves those goals.  By the by and in the interest of full disclosure, I am a fairly substantial (for me) contributor to MinnPost.

Tell me about the challenges of starting a news gathering organization from scratch?

I’ve worked for a big news organization for most of my career. That meant that there were certain things in place when I arrived at work. Like a desk, a phone, a newsroom, a staff. Starting a news organization from scratch means putting in place a lot of things at once – from developing a policy to deal with unnamed sources to finding a building to house the newsroom.

What would you do differently if you were to do it again?

I wish we had started the project earlier. We’ve got a lot of terrific ideas, but we won’t have all of them in place by the time we launch Nov.8. We’ll roll them out as time allows.

The most frequent criticism I hear of MinnPost is that it’s a bunch of old newspaper folks trying to do “new world” digital journalism. What lessons are you learning about the differences between newspapers and on online news organization?

First of all, it’s not just a bunch of old newspaper folks. We’ve got a number of younger journalists and many who don’t have newspaper backgrounds. For example, one of our top editors, Corey Anderson, is the former online managing editor for one of Minnesota’s best alternative publications. And Corey doesn’t live in a nursing home.

We’ve also hired one of the best and most creative production companies in town to oversee our video journalism. This is a small firm of young and talented video journalists who do high-quality documentaries.

I am learning that a lot of readers who are serious about news are a little leery of what they read online. Most big daily newspapers already have credibility with their readers. Online operations have to earn it. I’m also leaning a lot, of course, about the differences in telling stories on the Web and in newspapers.

How will MinnPost content be different from what we’ve seen before?

There’s nothing new under the sun, right? We’re going to try to take the best qualities of traditional journalism and combine them with the best qualities of the online reporting. That means our coverage will be about important matters, the information will be accurate, the reporting will be fair, the storytelling will be informal and the devices used to tell those stories will include video, audio and other tools of the Web.

You have talked enthusiastically about a concept called Current Posts. Can you explain that?

MinnPost will run about eight Current Posts every day about a variety of topics – public affairs, the arts, business, sports and so on. Posts combine the best qualities of a blog with the best qualities of a news story and are reported and written by professional journalists who know what they’re talking about. They are shorter pieces with an informal tone and are based on original reporting. But they are not news stories like you see in most newspapers. They won’t have that “neutral” news story voice – detached, sometimes stiff and awkward – that gets in the way of speaking directly and honestly to the reader.

We’re looking for something closer to the voice of the Web – that conversational tone most of us use when we are describing a story in an email or telling a friend about something we’ve learned. Posts will also have a lot of analysis. Posts are not opinion pieces or editorials, but many of them will be highly analytical and written with a point of view that is based on information and reporting.

What other storytelling innovations will we see in MinnPost?

We’d like to get very good at telling stories with words and using audio and video to enhance that reporting. We’d like to avoid putting up audio and video just to have audio and video on the site. Rather, we’d like to use multi-media to better tell the story.

Will we see any coverage or staff deployment innovations?

We’ve made an agreement with the local public television station to have our reporters and editors regularly appear on television to talk about MinnPost stories. We’ve also got some ambitious coverage plans we’ll be announcing in the coming weeks.

You are contracting with writers rather than hiring them.  So far, what are the implications of that?

This model has its challenges. It takes a lot of editors’ time to stay in contact with journalists who are, in effect, independent contractors and not on staff.  Plus it can be difficult to coordinate coverage and keep all the reporters informed about what others are doing.

What are you doing that you would not have done in the newspaper environment?

Big daily newspapers have to be all things to all people. In other words, newspapers have to cover almost everything in order to attract the widest possible audience. They are built on a for-profit business model. So as newspaper readership declines and revenues fall, newspapers are in the difficult position of trying to attract people who aren’t reading newspapers while their newsrooms are being cut back. The result is thinner coverage in general with less emphasis on subjects people interested in news care about and more of an emphasis on the kinds of topics “everyone” is interested in – entertainment, crime, celebrities and so on.

MinnPost is built on a not-for-profit model, so we’re not subject to the same market forces that are limiting high-quality journalism at for-profit news operations. MinnPost is for news-intense readers. We can shape our coverage for one audience. This well-informed crowd already knows a lot about what’s going on in the world of news. That means we don’t have to cover the basics, and instead can focus our coverage on what developments mean and what motivates people in the news. But providing information for a news-intense audience has its challenges. We have to tell them something they don’t already know. That’s what we’re going to try to do.

A key component of your strategy is a mid-day print publication of about 8 letter-size pages. How is the planning for that proceeding?

We understand some of our readers would rather read our reports on paper, not on their computers. So MinnPost in Print, the best of what’s on each day, will be available around the lunch hour Monday through Friday. Readers will be able print it on a home or office printer or they can pick up a copy at one of several dozen locations in the business districts of Minneapolis, St. Paul and some first-ring suburbs.

A lot of newspaper people are watching MinnPost carefully. What do you think they will learn from your efforts?

That there’s a place for their skills and talents on the Web.

What single thing most excites you about this effort?

That there’s a possibility of a sustainable business model that will support high-quality journalism.